Appeal Court Grants Right to Wild Camp on Dartmoor Commons
In January, a High Court judge rendered a verdict stating that a nearly four-decade-old legislation did not authorize people to set up tents overnight on Dartmoor Commons without permission from landowners.
Following this ruling, Alexander and Diana Darwall challenged the Dartmoor National Park Authority (DNPA), citing concerns about the impact of some campers on livestock and the environment.
The DNPA later sought an appeal to overturn Sir Julian Flaux’s decision, arguing that his interpretation of the 1985 law regarding access rights to Dartmoor Commons was incorrect.
The appeal court, consisting of Sir Geoffrey Vos, Lord Justice Underhill, and Lord Justice Newey, granted the appeal in a ruling, affirming that the law indeed grants members of the public the right to rest or sleep on Dartmoor Commons, whether during the day or at night, and whether in a tent or otherwise, as long as byelaws are adhered to.
Sir Geoffrey emphasized the critical question of whether wild camping qualifies as a form of “open-air recreation” and concluded that it does.
He clarified that the fact that a tent is closed rather than open does not alter the nature of wild camping, as it still constitutes an essential part of open-air recreation, allowing individuals to rest and sleep while engaging in the activity.
Lord Justice Underhill concurred with Sir Geoffrey’s reasoning and highlighted that the byelaws offer a practical framework to maintain a balance between the rights of the public accessing the commons and the rights of landowners and others.
He acknowledged that many people find pleasure in sleeping in tents amidst open country, often as part of a broader experience like hiking and birdwatching during the day.
Previously, Sir Julian had ruled that the legislation conveyed a “right to roam,” which did not include the right to wild camp without permission, prompting concerns from campaigners who believed that wild camping was a well-established practice in the national park.
The appeal court’s decision was met with appreciation by the Open Spaces Society, an intervening organization in the case.
Its general secretary, Kate Ashbrook, expressed relief that the judges unanimously and definitively acknowledged that open-air recreation encompasses backpack camping on the commons.
She hoped that this judgment would pave the way for extending the right to backpack camping without landowner permission in more areas across England.
Dartmoor National Park, designated in 1951, encompasses a 368-square mile area, including “commons,” unenclosed moorland privately owned where locals can graze their livestock.
The DNPA has introduced a new “permissive system,” allowing backpack campers access to nearly 52,000 acres of common land across the national park, as long as they abide by a code of conduct.